A Season To RememberMay 28, 2009
By Kevin Tankersley
Adversity. If you listen to coaches long enough, they'll eventually mention it, and talk about how their players overcame it. And the Baylor basketball teams dealt with more than their fair share of the stuff this past season. From on-the-court matters to issues of life and death, the hard court Bears and Lady Bears faced it this year.
Scott Drew's Bears began the season unlike any other Baylor men's basketball team in recent history. They beat Providence and 14th-ranked Arizona State on national television in November, then defeated Washington State on its home court en route to winning 15 of their first 18 games. In the Big 12 Conference season, however, it often looked like another team was wearing the uniforms of a Bear squad that was once among the top 25 in the country for a school-record seven straight weeks, reaching as high as 19th in the national polls. After Baylor won three of its first four conference contests, the Bears proceeded to close out the regular season by losing 10 of 12 games.
Interestingly, as Baylor was struggling on the floor, fans obviously never lost faith. The Bears set a Ferrell Center record for total attendance, averaging more than 7,000 a game. A contest against Texas A&M, which came on the heels of a six-game losing streak, drew an overflow crowd of 10,407 to the Ferrell Center.
But after struggling through a season that saw the Bears finish with a 5-11 record against Big 12 opponents, Baylor regained its early-season form in the post-season conference tournament.
"We were able to make some noise," senior forward Kevin Rogers said of the Bears' performance in the Big 12 tourney.
Baylor entered the tournament as the ninth seed, but beat No. 8 seed Nebraska on March 11 and then shocked top seed and defending national champion Kansas, 71-64, the next day. The Bears then defeated Texas, 76-60, before losing to Missouri, 73-60, in the tournament's championship game.
The Bears were disappointed not to receive a bid to the NCAA Tournament. Organizers of the National Invitation Tournament, however, had heard the noise the Bears made late in the year and extended Baylor an invitation. More than 8,400 fans filled the Ferrell Center to watch Baylor beat traditional powerhouse Georgetown, 74-72, in the first round of the tourney. From there, the Bears went on the road, thumping Virginia Tech, 84-66, and then winning at Auburn, 74-72.
Then came the trip to Madison Square Garden in New York City, where Baylor beat San Diego State, 76-62, to reach the NIT final. The season concluded with the championship game on April 2, a heartbreaker the Bears lost, 69-63, to Penn State.
"Expectations were very high at the beginning of the season... We got into the Big 12 and we struggled," senior Mamadou Diene said. "After that, during the postseason, we talked to each other and knew what we were capable of. We knew that. We were not going to throw in the towel. We had to put the pieces together and move the right way. We put the pieces together to be the team we were before the Big 12, and that's how we were able to play in the championship of the NIT."
The postseason run was a "real tribute to the seniors and the team and understanding they had two options," Drew said at his end-of-season news conference on April 7. "One, to give up, and two, to fight through it. A lot of times in life people choose the easy one which is to not persevere, and I think that's the great thing about sports; it relates to life and you don't ever want to throw in the towel. We didn't, and because we didn't, we were rewarded."
Drew understands overcoming adversity and building a basketball program. He was on the staff of his father, Homer Drew, that took over a Valparaiso team that had never recorded a winning season in Division I competition and took it to nine consecutive regular season or Horizon League tournament championships.
"I saw Baylor as a similar opportunity, of a school that was low at that point but at the same time had great potential to be built into a great program," he said.
And Baylor was indeed at a low point. The team was just coming off NCAA restrictions that prevented play in any non-conference games during the 2005-06 season--a rough welcome to campus for then-freshmen Rogers, Curtis Jerrells and Henry Dugat.
Four years later, the Bears are coming off consecutive postseason appearances for the first time in two decades and the program's first-ever back-to-back 20-win seasons. With Baylor making an appearance in the NCAA tournament at the conclusion of the 2007-08 season and its remarkable run through the NIT this year, "the bar has been raised, and there are a lot more bars to be raised," said sophomore guard LaceDarius Dunn.
Besides the on-the-court success the Bears have celebrated in the Ferrell Center, the arena has also been the site where classroom accomplishment has been marked. Diene walked across the Ferrell Center stage at graduation on December 20 with a degree in communication studies, while fellow seniors Rogers, Jerrells and Dugat each received their diplomas in May. All four graduated in four years, "which is a tremendous accomplishment," Drew said.
"We're very fortunate because they all come from families that emphasize the academics and the importance of it, and that's what makes them such a good fit here at Baylor. I credit them for putting in the hard work and our academic services, people like Bart Byrd [Baylor's assistant athletic director for student-athlete services], who have made sure they've stayed focused and on the right track," Drew added.
The men's basketball program received recognition from the NCAA in April for having Academic Progress Rate (APR) scores among the top 10 percent in the country. The APR tracks academic progress of each team's student-athletes and takes into account eligibility, retention and graduation, according to the NCAA, and provides a clear picture of the academic culture in each sport.
"This special recognition is an indication that these programs are performing at the highest level academically in their sport. This is further evidence of Baylor's commitment to academic and athletics excellence," Baylor athletic director Ian McCaw said.
"I've always told myself, 'You might as well get your degree. You're going to be here four years,'" Jerrells said. "Guys like David Wesley, my family, my dad, my friends, they all want me to. I'll be the second person in my family to graduate from college. That motivates me."
Wesley played at Baylor from 1990-93, and despite going undrafted after his senior season, went on to a 14-year NBA career. He retired in 2007 after helping the Cleveland Cavaliers reach the league finals, a first for that franchise, and spent the past season as a student manager on Drew's staff while working toward his degree in physical education.
A decade and a half after leaving school, Wesley joined the three seniors in graduating in May--just with that little detour (a successful NBA career) in between.
While the Baylor men's squad faced issues mostly on the court, the women's team dealt with matters that were "life-jarring tragedies and obstacles," coach Kim Mulkey said.
The team was in Oregon when junior Morghan Medlock learned that her mother, Shannan Barron, had been murdered in Little Rock, Arkansas. Barron's boyfriend Gerald Gallian also died in what police believed to be a murder-suicide.
"We addressed it immediately," Mulkey said. Her first act was "to deal with Morghan in a one-on-one setting, to see what Morghan's needs were. Not what our program's needs were. 'What do you need from me, Morghan? What can I do to help?' Once I got a feel for what Morghan's needs were, then we addressed the team. From there, you just go hour by hour and day by day. And that's what we did."
Medlock actually played in Baylor's game the next day, an 81-71 win over Oregon on December 20. Medlock started the game, played 18 minutes and recorded seven points and six rebounds.
"She's a strong kid," Mulkey said. "I don't know if it's as much what Coach did to help Morghan. She may tell you differently, but it was more I think of Morghan's own strength. We provided the emotional support. We provided the hang-in-there tough love. We provided the soft love. We provided the tears that were all genuine. But through it all, Morghan has got to deal with a heck of a lot more down the road than we do. We're just in her life at a moment in time where we can help as much as we can help."
At the news conference following the Lady Bears' 72-63 win over Texas A&M to claim the Big 12 championship, Medlock addressed what she dealt with last season.
"The main thing is I have my teammates," she said. "If I didn't have anybody else, my dad couldn't get to games and my little brother couldn't be here, I had my teammates. And they have--I don't even know how to say--kept me up this entire way... I think everybody at Baylor ... just rallied around me and made it hard to be sad or anything of that nature."
From Oregon, the Lady Bears were scheduled to fly to Berkeley for a game at the University of California, but snowy weather trapped the team in Portland for a day--"It seemed like forever," Mulkey said--forcing the cancellation of the Cal contest. Eventually, the team embarked on a 14-hour bus ride to San Francisco "just to get those kids home for Christmas," Mulkey said.
Mulkey said going into the season, "I knew we could be very good and I knew we could contend in the top two, three, four in the league. I firmly believed that. As we started playing and I watched the progress of Danielle Wilson and how good she had become, I started thinking, 'Gosh. With the right seed and the right finish in the Big 12, this team could sneak in and be a potential [NCAA] Final Four team.' I started thinking that about January."
Just after that, however, disaster struck, when Wilson, the team's leading rebounder and scorer, went down with a knee injury in the Texas game on February 28 in Austin. She didn't play again the rest of the season.
"It was definitely a big loss for us, but I wasn't going to let my basketball team think that," Mulkey said. "I'd walk in there and tell them, 'Here's what we lose with Danielle. Now who in this room can pick it up just a little bit? Not one player is going to do it. But can you, Jessica Morrow, give me two more rebounds a game? Can you, Kelli Griffin, give me two more buckets a game? And make up those points and rebounds throughout the whole lineup?' And that's how I coached it.
"I went in and told them that we will never, ever let anyone think that because we lost Danielle Wilson, we're going to just say, 'Wow. We've had a good year. I don't know that we can win anymore. I don't know if we can even get a good seed in the NCAA tournament.' No way. I told them that it was a devastating blow, but we're never going to say that publically. We're never going to play like that when we hit the floor. And we didn't."
Mulkey said Wilson's injury caused her to reconsider her team's postseason chances.
"We went from a potential Final Four team to I don't know where we're going to measure up now," she said.
Her team, however, had other thoughts.
"We kept winning," Mulkey said. "We had enough time and enough games left to prove to the [NCAA selection] committee and everybody else that we could keep winning. At that point, that's when a lot of different players took over. Each game it was a different player that had a good game."
In the eight games Baylor played after Wilson was injured, six different players led the Lady Bears in scoring and five shared top rebounding honors.
After the Texas game--which Baylor won, 66-57--the Lady Bears lost at Kansas before closing out the regular season with a 64-60 win over Texas A&M. Baylor then swept through the Big 12 tournament, beating Oklahoma State (67-62) and Iowa State (63-57) before claiming another conference title with a 72-63 win over Texas A&M.
And Baylor did earn that NCAA bid. Their opening round game was scheduled for March 22 in Lubbock. Before the game, however, illness struck. This time, it wasn't a player who was sick. It was Mulkey herself.
Mulkey was hospitalized the day of the game after reacting to a medication she was taking following the removal of a kidney stone. As she did with Medlock's loss and Wilson's injury, Mulkey addressed the situation head-on.
"I don't sugarcoat things for kids. Some kids need to be patted and loved and sugarcoated. There's a time and place for that," she said. "I believe in always being honest. Sometimes I'm too brutally honest, but when the issue [of her illness] arose, I addressed the team and told them what was taking place, and the only thing that was hard for me when I addressed them was that I couldn't give them a definite answer of what was wrong with me. I live in a black-and-white world. You win; you lose. In medicine, there are no definite answers sometimes, especially when you've got a lot of issues going on in your body and you're trying to eliminate possibilities of what it could be.
"I just told them what all the options were that they were looking at that it could possibly be and that today we don't know. What I did know is that I wasn't going to be able to coach them that night. I was not in any pain. I was surprised that I was as sick as I was according to lab reports and doctors."
With Mulkey alone in her room at University Medical Center in Lubbock, watching on television, assistant coach Leon Barmore led the Lady Bears past the University of Texas-San Antonio, but just barely. Baylor squeaked out an 87-82 win in overtime.
"This is one of those moments where assistant coaches have been trained very well. But more important than the assistants is [the players have] been trained very well. I tell them all the time, 'Put yourself in a position to coach yourselves. If something should happen to all of the coaches on a sideline, you should be able to go out there and do some things on your own.'"
Mulkey said she was just where she needed to be as that game was going on.
"I watched it from my hospital bed by myself in the dark and I could just see the stress on the faces of all of them. I hated that but it was, again, not something you plan," she said. "At that moment in my life, honestly, I was not as stressed as you'd think I'd be watching it. There were other things going on in my head other than basketball, so I was probably where I needed to be. I was thinking of my life, my health, my own two children. And watching that game wasn't near as stressful as people think it was because I was more worried about my own life at that time."
After the win over UTSA, Baylor stayed in Lubbock and beat South Dakota State, 60-58, two days later to reach the Sweet 16 for the fourth time in six years. The Lady Bears' NCAA run ended on March 28 when they dropped a 56-39 decision to eventual national runner-up Louisville in Raleigh, North Carolina.
"They gave me everything they had," Mulkey said after the game. "I have never coached a team at Baylor that has had to endure more than they have. I can't shed tears because all I can do is share hugs with them because that's about the gutsiest team I've ever been a part of."